Organizer : Maureen Aung-Thwin, Soros Foundation
Chair: Michael Aung-Thwin, University of Hawai'i, Manoa
Discussant: Charivat Santaputra, Permanent Mission of Thailand to the United Nations
Among a host of strong kings in Burma's history who were successful in unifying and expanding their respective domains, 16th century Burmese King, Bayinnaung of the Taung-ngu Dynasty, has become the unusual focus of attention in Burma today. A large statue of him has been erected, his palace at Pegu is being excavated with extraordinary enthusiasm, themes associated with Bayinnaung have seen exceptional space in the press, and young men choose Bayinnaung when asked who is their favorite king. This has been in the context of a Burma that socially and culturally isolated itself for the past three decades or more, has been stung by harsh, external criticism for its political policies more recently, and has been conspicuously left behind by rapidly developing economies of several of its neighbors, especially Thailand.
The papers attempt to understand the attraction of King Bayinnaung today, when there are other, equally qualified candidates for such glorification. Why Bayinnaung and not Aniruddha or Kyanzittha of Pagan, Thalun of the Second Ava Dynasty, Alaunghpaya, Bodawhpaya, or Mindon of the Konbaung Dynasty? These kings did as much as, if not more than Bayinnaung to unify Burma, to strengthen its military and administration, to enhance its religious and cultural life, and to develop its economic resources. In other words, they were all cakravartins.
At the same time, we wish to go beyond the obvious reason that Bayinnaung was the only one to militarily extend his kingdom into what is now Thailand and Laos, reaching Vientiane, even if briefly. Thus, it is, first of all, more than his military prowess that is appealing to both the popular culture and Burma's leaders today. It is also his regional and local stature, his "secular" and "modern" outlook while accommodating religion and tradition, and his broader vision of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic kingdom. It is, secondly, more than the past that is at issue; it is also the present. We wish to explore these more subtle kinds of reasons for the phenomenon.
Different perspectives on the issue will be presented, as Burmese, Thai, American, and British scholars of Burma have been asked to participate. Yet, the common ground held by the majority of the panelists is their discipline (early Burmese history), their sensitivity to "autonomous" history, and their focus on indigenous sources.
The Reconstruction of King Bayinnaung of Burma in Thai Chronicles
Sunait Chutintaranond, Chulalongkorn University
This paper examines the Thai chronicles for Thai perceptions of King Bayinnaung, and shows how Thai historiography of Bayinnaung changed, not after Bayinnaung's conquest of Thailand in the mid 16th century (as one would expect), but after the last Burmese conquest of Ayuthia in the 18th century by Hsinphyushin. The paper suggests that whereas Bayinnaung acted as a true cakravartin in his conquest of Ayuthia, the kings of the next Burmese dynasty who also conquered Ayuthia, did not. Hence, it was less the conquest per se than the behavior of the conqueror, less his ethnicity than his stature, that mattered.
Bodawhpaya's Foreign Policy
Euan Bagshawe, Independent Scholar
This paper suggests that it is not Bayinnaung but Bodawhpaya that the present regime regards as model, particularly the King's statement that the military (tatmadaw) was the backbone of society. In this sense, this paper differs from the rest and offers a varying opinion.
Bayinnaung in Burmese Literature
U Saw Tun, Northern Illinois University
This paper shows the extent to which the King has been the subject of poetry, plays, novels, and short stories. It describes how Bayinnaung's achievements as conqueror and administrative leader are well remembered by posterity. From the years immediately succeeding the fall of his empire, Burmese writers praised Bayinnaung so that the youth of the next generation would be inspired by his example. This literary focus was evident, particularly in the British period as nationalist writers reminded the colonized Burmese of their glorious past. Educators also perpetuated the theme of Bayinnaung's accomplishments in their courses. Today, his name is heard in military marching songs, names of school organizations, names of university halls, and so on.
Cakravartin Amongst Cakravartins
Michael Aung-Thwin, University of Hawai'i, Manoa
Our discussant will present "Cakravartin Amongst Cakravartins," which will provide a historical context of the past several centuries leading to Bayinnaung's success in the 16th century, and ask the question "why Bayinnaung?" More precisely, the paper focuses on the excavation and description of Bayinnaung's palace and city as reported in recent Burmese newspapers and other earlier sources, not only to demonstrate more vividly the differences between his palace and those of earlier, equally successful monarchs, but also to suggest that the symbolism conveyed by Bayinnanung's city expresses certain sentiments about the state found in Burma today. It will suggest how images of the past are reinterpreted to validate concerns of the present.